In Afghanistan, a Disjointed Government Struggles to Maintain Security

3 MINS READOct 3, 2015 | 12:58 GMT
In Afghanistan, a Disjointed Government Struggles to Maintain Security
Afghan special operations forces prepare to spearhead a counteroffensive to retake the northern city of Kunduz from Taliban insurgents, Afghanistan, Sept. 29.

In a surprisingly swift operation, the Taliban seized control over much of the Afghan city of Kunduz on Sept. 27. However, as quickly as the group gained Kunduz, it again lost it to internationally backed Afghan forces. Still, the momentary victory was the highest profile territorial gain for the Taliban since U.S.-backed forces ousted the group from power in 2001. It also highlights the substantial challenges Afghanistan's unity government faces, both politically and in terms of security. Afghan officials have provided conflicting reports on precisely how the Taliban were able to so quickly wrest control of the city from security forces (fighting lasted less than a day), though it is clear that government forces retreated from the fight. It is also evident that the balance of power is shifting in Afghanistan and that the trend is unlikely to reverse without international intervention.

The government in Kabul currently operates under a tenuous power-sharing agreement that emerged from the 2014 elections. This agreement has made the government's security efforts as important for political stability as they are for maintaining Afghanistan's territorial integrity. Kunduz is a major population center, strategically located on highways that connect directly to Kabul and Mazar-i-Sharif. But it is just one of the cities in which Afghan security forces are struggling to maintain control against the Taliban insurgency. Until winter brings its usual lull in insurgent activity, the Taliban will continue to conduct attacks and to stage similar offensives in northern provinces, including Faryab, Takhar, Baghlan, and Badakhstan. This is in addition to Taliban operations in the southern and eastern provinces of Afghanistan. Kabul's challenge will be to balance its security efforts in Kabul with those in these other areas.

This military balance, though, will not be easy to achieve given Afghanistan's political disunity. It is widely recognized that without foreign military support, Kabul simply does not have the resources to fully defeat the Taliban. This reality has pushed the government into peace talks with the insurgents, largely spearheaded by Afghan President Ashraf Ghani. However, these peace talks necessarily include Pakistan, a fact that has bred disagreement between those who favor the talks and those who oppose them and view Pakistan as an untrustworthy negotiating partner. The spate of Taliban attacks in Kabul since August has not helped strengthen Ghani's case for continuing the negotiations. And now, after the temporary fall of Kunduz, tension in Kabul is rising, with some lawmakers even calling for Ghani's resignation.

The mountainous terrain of northern Afghanistan is hard to defend, and Taliban activity in the area has slowly escalated since 2014. West of Kunduz, in the Faryab province, Kabul has tried to bolster its own forces with nongovernmental elements, including militias loyal to Vice President Abdul Rashid Dostum, to prevent the Taliban from making substantial territorial gains. However, Afghan forces are still stretched thin, and, to adequately protect Kunduz, Kabul will likely have to sacrifice its efforts in southern provinces, including in Helmand.

Afghanistan's only real hope against the Taliban comes through international support. Since the end of NATO's combat mission in Dec. 2014, around 13,000 NATO troops and some 3,000 U.S. personnel remained stationed in Afghanistan, down from the 130,000 NATO troops deployed there in 2011. Though this reduction has strained the Afghan security forces, the operation to retake Kunduz shows that international forces still play a vital role in combating the Taliban. The involvement of Western special operations forces and close air support was pivotal. 

Mercifully, the Taliban movement is also divided, inhibiting the organization's ability to conduct operations against the Afghan government. But without a renewed commitment by international forces, Kabul’s military and political limitations will surpass the limitations of a divided Taliban. Winter will dampen the Taliban's ability to stage offensives like the one recently conducted in Kunduz, but it is clear from this active fighting season that Kabul's insurgency problem is far from over.

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